In 1988, a fairly obscure independent Belgian record label released a 12” record in a yellow cardboard sleeve.
Having begun trading only a year previously, KK Records was a purveyor mostly of EBM and weird industrial stuff like the Frontline Assembly, Hafler Trio, and Vomito Negro. Printed onto the cover of this particular record was a crude line drawing of a zombie-like figure wearing a vest and holding a ghetto blaster. It contained just five tracks, most of them only a couple of minutes long, and each one an unrelenting series of slaps in the face: pummeling electronic beats, shouted vocals, primal buzzsaw guitar riffs, and twinkling toy keyboards, all smacked down onto tape with the gain way up in the red and all the grace of an auto wrecking yard. The album was called The Greatest Story Ever Distorted and it was by Smersh.
“Pretty much at that point the whole cassette underground community really didn’t want anything else to do with us anymore,” Smersh’s Mike Mangino tells me, over the phone. “It was like, nah they put records out now. To hell with them! We started putting tapes out under other names just so we could get reviews.” They could hardly have anticipated it at the time, but as far as their peers were concerned, Smersh – though they never signed with a major, never endorsed a commercial product, never got one of their songs in a movie or an ad or a TV show – had just sold out. Welcome to the late-80s cassette underground.
“There were less than 10 copies that got made because nobody wanted them. They couldn’t get reviewed.”
Mike Mangino, Smersh
The Greatest Story Ever Distorted was not the first record to be released by Smersh. By 1988, they had already put out at least 16 different tapes on their own Atlas King imprint. They would be followed by as many more – even though, having been ostracised for such flagrant commercialism, with “some of those [subsequent] tapes there were less than 10 copies that got made because nobody wanted them. They couldn’t get reviewed.” To get the full story about this most prolific and visceral of bands it is necessary to go back another 10 years, to an audio equipment shop in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Mike Mangino would have been about 13 years old when he discovered there was a musical life outside the AM radio pop/rock that his mother liked to listen to while driving. “I picked up an issue of Creem because it had Spiderman on the cover,” he explains, “and I was like, what is some of this stuff? I must find out.” He started checking out music by David Bowie, Roxy Music, “anything that looked interesting.” By the late 70s that thirst for interesting sounds had begun to lead him into some increasingly recherché territory.
It would have been 1978 when Mangino and his friends “started fooling around doing stuff” after hours at an audio equipment shop that one of them worked at. This gave the fledgling group access to the equipment while the shop wasclosed, but for the most part they weren’t interested in any of the oscillators or voltage-controlled gear that may have lurked on the shelves. At this point they were playing “basic punk stuff. Bass, drums, and guitar with some cheap toy keyboards thrown it.” It was, he accepts, “mainly for our own amusement.”
One day a guy called Chris Shepard, a friend of a friend, “started tagging along because he didn’t have anything better to do.” In time, everyone else seemed to drift off and lose interest: “We weren’t really doing anything. Just screwing around. Chris was into it enough to stay.” He ended up staying for another decade and a half, until his untimely death in 1995 after a long struggle with cystic fibrosis. By that time, Smersh had released some 30 albums, a handful of singles and EPs, and appeared on an almost uncountable number of compilations.
When they met, Shepard was mostly into prog rock, which was never really Mangino’s thing – he was by now more into independent European releases like ‘Warm Leatherette’ by The Normal. But there was one place where their tastes overlapped: “We decided that we were going to be the East Coast version of The Residents.” That was the group, says Mangino, “that kept us recording stuff. Like, yeah, we can do that. That’s weird. We like that.”
Towards the end of 1980, Shepard and Mangino started to think they had amassed a few decent recordings, so they sent out a demo tape to just one label: Ralph Records, the San Francisco company formed by The Residents to release their own material. Up to that point, they had been coming up with a different name for themselves every time they recorded something. Somehow the name they chose to write on that demo tape stuck.
“I was reading all the [James] Bond books at the time,” Mangino explains. Smersh was the name of the Soviet counterintelligence unit, Bond’s primary foe from Casino Royale to Goldfinger (though largely replaced by the less nationally specific SPECTRE in the films). “So at that point, when we sent the tape to Ralph, I decided that we were gonna call ourselves that. It was probably a really bad decision because people didn’t know what it was. People couldn’t pronounce it. I think over the years we maybe got one or two letters where people knew what it was from.”
Eventually a reply came through from Ralph Records. It was short and to the point.
“Okay,” figured Mangino, “they didn’t hate it, but they didn’t want to put it out. I knew that there were people in London putting stuff out on tape at that time already. So I said to Chris, we should do this! We should just put the stuff out on tape. Chris, being a total audiophile, was like, tapes? No one will want tapes…”
“It was kind of like, a hobby. A shared hobby.”
Mike Mangino, Smersh
The tape medium has been around since the 1930s. Invented by AEG and BASF in Germany, tape’s capacity for seamless cutting and splicing proved enormously useful to the National Socialist regime for propaganda purposes. When that regime fell, the technology spread quickly to the Allied nations as spoils (or even spools) of war. But it wasn’t until August 1963 that tape became portable and convenient enough for domestic consumers, when Philips introduced the Musicassette (or MC) to the Berlin Radio Show. This format became a standard when Philips chose to license the format free of charge, so long as other companies accepted their specifications. Still, for a long time tape’s dominance of the portable music market was stymied by the success of the 8-track cartridge consortium led by the Lear Jet Corporation.
In May 1987, Jon Pareles, writing in the New York Times, would remark on the existence of a “cassette underground” thriving on “artistic freedom, low cost, privacy and spontaneity”. But it’s tempting to trace the origins of the cassette underground back to 1979. In that year, the ideas animating the Iranian Revolution were spread quickly throughout the country on Xeroxed paper and dubbed tapes. It was also the year Sony introduced the Walkman and Tascam gave us the 4-track Portastudio. Between 1979 and 1987, labels like Touch, Falling A, Third Mind, and Sound of Pig released a mind-boggling diversity of strange sounds, opening up a seam into a hitherto untapped reservoir of bedroom eccentrics and sonic experimentation.
In 1983, the critic Dave Henderson began his ‘Wild Planet’ column about experimental and industrial music, often cassette-released, in the magazine Sounds. Smersh were reviewed positively in an early ‘Wild Planet’ column, and from then on they started getting in contact with fans and other artists all over the world – but especially in Europe. “So at that point we were kind of like, hey! People actually like it! It started getting a little more serious around that time.” Also, “by then we could kinda – well, not so much Chris – but I could kind of, almost, play something.”
Smersh never played live. “I have no need or desire to perform,” Mangino tells me. Shepard did briefly join what Mangino calls “a pick-up band. Like, a rock kind of thing. But Chris, being Chris, went on stage and played a chair.” Even without a single gig, however, the tape-swapping community allowed Smersh to gradually build up a following, a network of like-minded people who would buy or trade their tapes and review them in photocopied fanzines.
Over the years they developed a routine. The audio supplies shop having been long abandoned after complaints from the neighbours, Mike and Chris would head down to the basement of Shepard’s parents’ place on a Monday night and start laying down a beat. Recording in a domestic setting necessitated the abandonment of live drums for rhythm machines, and the Smersh sound would gradually change with each new bit of gear they acquired. The Electro-Harmonic Rhythm 12 gave way to TR606, TB303, and SH-09. “They were affordable and they made weird noises,” Mangino explains. “We had to have them.”
They would usually finish a track in a night, never to be performed again and, according to Mangino, once they had decided whether or not to release it, never so much as listened to again. “It’s not like we would be driving around in a car listening to our own music,” he insists. Even now, with new compilations of old Smersh material appearing on Dark Entries, Mangino hardly felt compelled to go back and listen again.
So what keeps you at it? Over 15 years, 30 albums – that’s a discography far more famous names would be jealous of.
“It was just fun to do,” Mangino says simply. “That’s all. It was kind of like a hobby. A shared hobby.”